Do You Believe In Natural Talent?

by Paul Wolfe on May 3, 2011

Some of you reading this aren’t going to agree with me.  What normally happens on blog posts is that people who don’t agree with the post generally hop to another blog without leaving a comment.

Please don’t do that.

Firstly you’re depriving what I think will be an interesting conversation of your perspective and your voice.  Whether you agree with me, or think I’m stark raving mad doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that you’ve got an opinion on this subject – and I you to share that opinion!

Secondly this topic is too important to just walk on by if you don’t agree.  For the record I don’t believe in Natural Talent – and further, I believe that people who DO believe in natural talent are placing a limiting belief upon themselves.

This limiting belief is one of the forces stopping perfectly capable people from living what Steven Pressfield calls ‘the life unlived.’  I’d like to see more of the people I know and care about – AND the people that YOU know and care about – fulfilling themselves by removing the barriers that stop them from leading the life that they could be leading.

Thirdly – did I say this was an important topic yet? – if you look at the evidence I’m about to put before you, not only does it shoot down the natural talent argument, but it also leads us to a blueprint on how to get better at just about anything.

You wanna learn to paint to a good standard?  No problem.

You wanna learn to write?  Ditto.  You wanna learn to play a musical instrument, or ski, or do pottery, or sculpt, or run an online business, or play tennis, or do just about anything?

NO FREAKING PROBLEM.

Seriously.  It’s no problem.  All you need are the following ingredients:

  • (i)  One or more good to great teachers.  (The better you get at the activity you’ve chosen to learn, the better the teacher you’ll need).
  • (ii)         The will to keep practicing and keep working at getting better.  (This can’t be underestimated by the way – sometimes I call it putting in hours at the coalface.  Because it’s sheer, bloody minded, hard work).
  • (iii)       Regular practice time.

And that’s it.  Combine those three things and you’ll start getting better.  Combine those three things in enough quantities and people will start calling you ‘naturally talented.’

That’s because they believe in the myth of natural talent.

The Myth Of Natural Talent

The myth of natural talent is one of the two most poisonous forces in the Universe.  (The other one is Resistance btw).

It’s poisonous because your Ego uses it to stop you from progressing at something you really want to achieve.  The Ego is programmed by thousands of years of evolution to keep us alive – and as a result it hates change.

That’s because with change comes uncertainty.  With uncertainty comes potential danger.  So the Ego tries to steer us away from change.  And uncertainty. And potential danger.  And when we want to learn to play a musical instrument, or learn to speak a foreign language, or learn to draw, or paint, the Ego does its work like this:

It finds an example of someone in your field who is really good.  And it whispers in your ear: “you can never be as good as them.  They’re naturally talented.”

Most of us are lost the minute we listen to that voice.  Or the minute we let that limiting belief take root in our psyche.  Back in the day this happened to me – I ‘invested’ over a thousand hours of practice time trying to get better at the bass guitar.  But I wasn’t seeing any progress.

So I became disinterested and stopped practicing.  I believed – wrongly – that I had reached the limit of my natural talent.  I was too young and inexperienced to question the teaching method that I was following at that time.

This was back in 1992/1993 – which was approximately the same period that a guy called Anders Ericsson was conducting a ground breaking study that shattered the myth of Natural Talent forever.

Anders Ericsson/Deliberate Practice/The 10,000-Hour Rule

Not many people have heard of Anders Ericsson – I bet you’ve all heard of the 10,000 Hour Meme though.

Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers popularized the 10,000 Hour rule – and essentially it states that to get to be world class at a discipline you need to put in 10,000 hours of practice.  Or 10 years of work.

Anders Ericsson was the guy who formulated the 10,000 Hour rule, and it was part of a conclusion of a detailed study of violinists at the West Berlin Academy Of Music.

Ericsson was fascinated with the question of ‘talent.’  Was talent natural, or was it the result of something else?  And he set out to study it.

Here’s what he did.   Along with his team of researchers they went to the West Berlin Academy of Music and conducted a detailed study of violinists.  (The West Berlin Academy was renowned for producing international soloist level violinists).

Without the students knowing, Ericsson asked to split the class of violinists into two groups – those that would make international soloist level, and those that were ‘merely good enough’ to be 1st Violin, 2nd Violin etc in internationally renowned symphony orchestras.
Then they conducted detailed interviews with the students, the student’s teachers, and the student’s parents.  These interviews resulted in the collection of data about each of the students, which Ericsson and his team then analyzed.

All of the violinists from both groups had extremely similar stories.  They’d all started playing at around the same age.  They’d all won similar competitions as they were getting older.  They were all currently putting in similar practice time at the coalface.
But there was one statistic that clearly separated Group 1 (those destined to be international soloists) from Group 2 (those good enough ‘only’ to be ensemble players).

And that was lifetime practice hours.

Group 1 on average had racked up 7,410 lifetime practice hours.

Group 2 had only managed 5,301 lifetime practice hours.

That’s a differential of 2109 practice hours.  To put that into some context for you – if you practiced 3 hours a day, for 6 days a week, every week of the year, it would take you over two years to make up those 2109 hours.

What’s ironic about Ericsson’s 10,000 Hour rule being included in Gladwell’s book Outliers is that there were NO outliers in Ericsson’s study.  There was no one in Group 1 who had practiced substantially less than his contemporaries, but who made up for less practice with ‘natural’ talent.

No one.

Let me put it a different way for you – if you played chess  against a friend who had played 2000 hours more than you, who would you expect to be more ‘naturally’ talented?

Now take Chess out of that paragraph and substitute any other activity – speaking a language, ski-ing, computer programming, writing, sculpting, painting, anything.  Do you think that someone with 2000 hours of practice more than you would appear more naturally talented than you?

Me too.

Now there’s lots more lessons to take from Ericsson’s groundbreaking studies.  That’s for another day.  Although he’s the big name in the expertise acquisition field – and rightly so – there are others.

One of them is Lazlo Polgar – who also had unanswered questions about the talent conundrum.  Those questions led to the training of his daughter:

Susan Polgar – The World’s First Female Chess Grandmaster

If you Google Susan Polgar you’ll quickly find out that she was the first female grandmaster at Chess.  You might also find out that she has two younger sisters who are also highly skilled at chess.

Lazlo Polgar believed that genius was made not born. And that children could reach exceptional levels provided they commenced learning at an early age

And he tested that belief by training his own children.

Prior to the birth of his children Lazlo Polgar knew little about chess.  With the help of his wife he home schooled his children – and chess was their specialist subject.

Here are some of the results of the training that Susan Polgar received:

  • Aged 4, she won the Budapest Girl’s Under 11 Tournament (with a score of 10-0 in the final!).
  • Aged 12, she won the World Under 16 Tournament (girls)]
  • Aged 15, Susan Polgar was the top ranked female chess player in the world
  • Aged 21, she became the first woman to qualify as a grandmaster

Susan’s younger sisters also received similar training – with similar results.

Remember earlier I said that three things were needed to get better at a chosen discipline: great teaching, practice hours, and the will to put those hours in?  With Susan Polgar all of those things combined – and the first female chess grandmaster was the result.
But Susan Polgar is not the only person who’s benefited from these three factors coming together.

The Child Prodigies – Mozart and Tiger Woods

Whenever Natural Talent is discussed, almost inevitably the names of Mozart and Tiger Woods appear.

And people will hold them up and say: these guys are natural talents.  Mozart was writing symphonies and concertos whilst still a child.  Tiger Woods won a major Masters tournament aged 18.  Yada yada yada.

All those facts are true.

But if you dig into their stories you’ll find them very similar to the Susan Polgar story.  What few people know is that Mozart’s father was not only a renowned composed in his own right, but was the pre-eminent musical pedagogue in Western Europe.  And he started teaching Mozart aged 20 months or so.

And Tiger Woods’s father Earl started training Tiger very early too – he designed a putter for Tiger to start playing with when he was only 8 months old.  The putter was for use when Tiger was in his high chair.

When you examine their stories, these child prodigies, these examples of ‘natural talent’, turn out to be further examples of talents that weren’t handed down from the Gods, but instead were honed by a combination of great teaching and thousands of hours of sheer, hard bloody work.

Great teaching is a crucial part of the equation too – and often overlooked.  The story of table tennis champion Mathew Syed illustrates how important great teaching is:

Silverdale Close vs. The Rest of Great Britain

Matthew Syed played table tennis.  For many years he was Number 1 in the UK.  He’s now a journalist, and writes for The Times.

What’s really interesting for the talent debate is that Mathew has also read the work of Ericsson and the people who’ve followed him, and written about it with particular reference to table tennis (or ‘ping pong’) in a book called Bounce.

In Bounce, Matthew looks back at how he became English table tennis champion – and attributes it to a number of factors.  Chief among them are these:

  • (i)  Access to a 24 Hour practice facility – the Omega Club (probably the only one in England at the time
  • (ii)         His high school sports teachers – Peter Charters – was the nation’s top table tennis coach
  • (iii)       His elder brother was also a fanatical player – so he always had someone to practice with.

There’s our talent troika – practice, teaching and will.  What’s particularly striking – and a fact that illustrates that teaching is as necessary to the acquisition of ‘talent’ or ability as anything else – is that at one time in the 1980s, Silverdale Road and the surrounding vicinity in Reading,  produced more outstanding table tennis players than the rest of the UK combined.

If You Still Believe In Natural Talent…

Please watch this short video.  And tell me in the comments if you think this 7-year-old girl is exhibiting any natural talent at tennis:

That 7-year-old girl doesn’t look naturally talented to me – yet on April 20th, 2009 she was ranked Number 1 in the world by the WTA.  And yes, that was above both of the Williams sisters.

The reason she was able to go on and reach that position was because of training, practice and persistence.  Scratch any ‘champion’ at any discipline – music, painting, writing, sport, anything – and you’ll find these three attributes.

Summary

Now I’ve talked a lot about natural talent in the context of champions.  And these people ARE extraordinary.  But what’s extraordinary about them isn’t that they possess any more natural talent than you and me – what they possess that differentiates them from you and me is thousands of hours of disciplined practice.

Now being a ‘champion’ isn’t what’s important – what’s important is that you recognize that natural talent doesn’t exist.  And that if you want to get better at ANYTHING, then you can.

You need:

  • (i)  To practice regularly
  • (ii)         A great teacher
  • (iii)       Persistence.

What Do YOU Think?

I already know this is a controversial subject. If you don’t agree with me, please don’t surf somewhere else.  Please take a moment to leave a comment telling me WHY you don’t agree with me.  And think about your comment – don’t just say: you’re wrong, you suck.  Tell me why I’m wrong.

I guarantee you that we will all be enriched by this debate.

The only rules are: be polite.  And courteous.  I want to learn.  I want you to learn.  I don’t have the time or energy for flame wars or pointless bickering.  Robust but polite debate is what I’m after….bring it!

{ 66 comments }

Perfecting Dad May 3, 2011 at 10:50 pm

Ok, so I both agree and disagree.

People very obviously do have natural talent. We can tell this for certain through two methods:

1) You fell victim to one of the classic blunders: Reverse Causation. You take the best few violinists in Berlin and find that they all practiced a lot, therefore you conclude that a lot of practice makes them the best. However, it is very possible that someone could practice 10,000 hours and not be good enough to be a soloist or 1st violin. These would never be caught in the study because the study started by looking for top violinists. It’s like looking at a catered dining hall and noticing that whenever 5 or more chefs are present there is a big party going on, and from this conclude that 5 chefs cause a big party.

2) A boundary case — take a person born with no arms, give them 10,000 hours of practice, and make them swim against a person WITH arms who only had 200 hours of practice. The arms are a natural advantage and obviously the armed person will win the race. From there we can surmise that genetics gives advantages, though not as obvious. Phelps has a better body for swimming than others. Tall people have more talent for basketball.

That said, I do agree that the more one practices the better one gets, and that it does take a LOT of practice to get to the top regardless of whether you have natural talent or not. You can get far without talent, but you may not get to the very limits of the top person in a competitive field like sports, chess, or violin where someone with talent would have that slight edge. However, in the game of life you don’t have to be the absolute best, you just have to be good enough to achieve big success. In fact, it’s very very easy to be “better than most” just by trying a little.

Paul Wolfe May 4, 2011 at 3:27 pm

thanks for leaving a comment – apologies that I’ve taken some time to reply.

Some interesting thoughts there…and some that I disagree with.

I agree that in some fields – namely sports – there are some sports where genetics play a massive factor. Give the same training to a 5 foot basketball player and a player who is 6 foot 4 high and the tall guy is gonna get picked over the 5 foot guy every time.

This sentence I don’t agree with:

“You can get far without talent, but you may not get to the very limits of the top person in a competitive field like sports, chess, or violin where someone with talent would have that slight edge.”

One of the conclusions of Ericsson’s ground breaking study is that there was NO-ONE in the top stream of violinists who was there on ‘talent’ and less practice. From memory – I’d have to check the figures to be sure – but the top violinists who averaged 7410 lifetime practice hours were all within plus or minus 5 or 6% of that figure. There was NO ONE in that group who had done less practice that his contemporaries.

Without the practice – and the right kind of practice – there IS no talent. It’s developed BY the practice.

Having said that – your conclusions in the last paragraph are spot on:

“However, in the game of life you don’t have to be the absolute best, you just have to be good enough to achieve big success. In fact, it’s very very easy to be “better than most” just by trying a little”

Most people are lazy and it often doesn’t take much hard work to get ahead of them. Compound interest does the rest for you.

Appreciate the time for your thoughts – be interested in further comments if you have them.

Paul

Perfecting Dad May 5, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Sorry, I missed this reply among the many others!

So I looked up this Ericsson study. I do have some experience in the science of expertise as my wife is taking Educational Psychology and we debate about this very topic often.

In this (and several other) studies, the important thing is not that all the expert violinists studied for 10,000 hours, it is that experts are experts only in the domain they practiced, not in others — the skills are not transferable, which supports the theory that you can acquire expertise through practice. If they were natural talents then you might expert the natural talent to show up elsewhere too; like expert chess players might be expected to have huge memory, but they don’t except when playing chess.

Another thing to note is that expert doesn’t mean best. Expert is a vaguely defined class of people who are very very good, but not necessarily the best — there are many experts in any domain, and yes I agree that you can “build” experts. Expertise, acquired through practice, is the total internalization of all the skills required. By practicing they take all the “thinking” out of the activity and automate it, making it unconscious. They move up to higher and higher orders of thought. Example: A beginner player thinks about holding the violin and bow. Then it becomes automatic and the player thinks about where to put his fingers to get the clear note. Then that becomes automatic and the player thinks about stringing notes together well, then about getting the little vibrato effects, then other fancy techniques, then feeling the music, etc.

The point of the studies was to determine if and how expertise can be acquired. By the way, many experts can’t even articulate how they do things anymore, because everything is so automated. They aren’t often good teachers, especially to beginners.

The studies still say nothing about whether _anyone_ can become an expert, only that experts practiced a lot to get there.

Paul Wolfe May 5, 2011 at 6:18 pm

Actually the purpose of Ericsson’s studies was to try and determine if there was such a thing as natural talent or not.

As well as the two groups I noted in the article itself, there was a third control group in the research that Ericsson et al did. This third group were students at the academy who were good violinists – but not good enough to play for international symphony orchestras.

These were people who were destined to become high level music teachers rather than play for symphony orchestras. And again the average lifetime practice hours figure was interesting – from memory it was 1500 or so hours down on the second group in the study.

What’s so interesting to me about this is that if ‘natural talent’ existed there would be outliers. There would be people in Group 1 who’d only practiced similar hours to Group 2.

But there aren’t.

There was another study – again with music. I couldn’t find the source though so I had to omit it from the article. Two researchers (Chester University I think – or Manchester) researched classical music. Over here in the Uk we have a grading system from Grade 1 to Grade 8 for children.

They took students whose teachers described them as gifted or talented. And they took students whose teachers described them as poor. The one thing the students had in common was that they had all reached Grade 5 standard.

And they did the Ericsson thing. Interviewed the students. Interviewed the teachers. The parents. Etc etc. And calculated how many practice hours it took to get to Grade 5 level piano.

For the gifted students it was 850 practice hours (on average). For the ‘poor’ students – can you guess how many practice hours it was? Yep, it was also 850.

The difference between the gifted students and the poor students was that the gifted students practiced more, so that they got those 850 hours in quicker than the poor students. And so were seen as gifted.

I must find that source – I read it in one of the ‘scholarly tomes’ that Ericsson has put together I think. (If anyone can cite the source, I’d appreciate them letting me know…)

Paul Wolfe May 5, 2011 at 6:19 pm

As a result of Ericsson’s studies he was able to formulate exactly WHAT kind of practice works. he called that practice Deliberate Practice. It has specific components – it’s a blueprint to acquire skill at anything.

If you’re learning something and you focus that learning through the lens of Deliberate Practice you will make constant and consistent progress.

Irrespective of your beliefs on the existence of natural talent or not, that’s the biggest takeaway from Ericsson’s work. (And something that Gladwell really skipped over in Outliers).

Paul Wolfe May 5, 2011 at 6:25 pm

Also the terms of ‘expert’ and ‘world class’ were terms that other people added to the 10,000 Hour ideas. Ericsson originally used the term ‘virtuoso’ – which fits with the violinists that he studied. As playing as a soloist for an internationally renowned symphony orchestra requires one to be a virtuoso.

Jack@TheJackB May 3, 2011 at 11:56 pm

I think that there is a merit to the idea of improving your skills through hours of practice. It is part of why I blog so frequently.

I know that the time I have spent writing has had a significant impact. The quality is better than it was and the speed at which I produce it has increased.

However I am not convinced that natural talent is something that you can apply to sports so easily. For the purpose of this example let’s use something that doesn’t require great size.

You could have the best teachers work with you to teach you how to become a world class sprinter and still lose to someone who has natural talent in the form of physical gifts that you cannot get around.

There are traits and attributes that impact a runner’s ability. It doesn’t matter whether you have the finest technique- their lungs could be naturally bigger or their muscles naturally stronger.

I suppose that it is not all that different from the comment above mine so I’ll wrap it up by saying that I think that the message here of not setting limits for ourselves is quite valuable.

Paul Wolfe May 4, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Jack

Question for you: do you do any specific writing exercises aimed at improving small areas of your writing? Or do you just do LOTS of writing? (which is the way most people improve their writing).

And I think the message of not being limited is invaluable.

Look forward to your answer if you have the time.

Paul

Jack@TheJackB May 4, 2011 at 9:51 pm

Hi Paul,

I do both. I try to make a point to write daily and to not limit myself to one style or format.

On a side note, I wonder if linguistics plays a role here. What I mean by that is that language has a tremendous impact on our views of the world.

I am pressed for time so I’ll try to revisit later, but I know that I approach things differently when I am speaking English versus another language.

Stan Faryna May 4, 2011 at 1:04 am

Jack targets on the take-away: don’t set unexplored limits on yourself.

Or said another way, hey, your toy box is actually smaller than it can be.

Perfecting dad also brings attention to another important take-away: it’s very very easy to be “better than most” just by trying a little.

In other words, don’t give up without a fight, you can do amazing things.

The obvious knee-jerk reaction is to emphasize natural advantages. Natural advantages are there and, as Paul suggests, some of those natural advantages just look like natural advantages. I felt the same knee jerk a few times while reading Paul’s post above. But when I saw Jack and Perfecting dad saying the exact same thing that I was about to say, I smiled and turned my little flower and, like Buddha’s pupil, I was enlightened.

I have several friends that I consider considerably more intelligent than myself. I mean their raw IQ is just wow. Honestly, I consider myself of average processing and information crunching power. Yet I remain constantly surprised and disappointed at their inability to process information in a manner that is meaningful, has impact, and gets results.

In my humble opinion, their lack of wisdom is tragic – considering that their IQs approach or exceed Einstein.

In fact, I dedicated about seven years of university and graduate level education to questions related to what it means to be a human person, who we are, society, life, the universe and everything. And then there’s all those other hours that weren’t directed by a professor or curriculmn. Not to mention all those hours of living, working, and doing as I continued to reflect on the big picture. I suppose I’m tallying 20k+ hours.

Ok, some said I had a natural advantage. There were rumors that I am a reincarnation of a bodhisattva. I will neither confirm or deny those rumors. [grin]

But I like Paul’s take. And I’m sticking to it. Because it means we can make a better world. All we need to do is put 10,000 hours at it. Each of us.

Paul Wolfe May 4, 2011 at 3:32 pm

Intriguingly quixotic answer as always Stan!

The IQ thing is interesting – there are Chess grandmasters with relatively low IQs, down in the 90s or so. It’s amazing what you can do with the right training…what I like is that even though Perfecting Dad didn’t agree with me in some factors, he still got the important takeaway.

Paul

Stan Faryna May 5, 2011 at 12:26 am

“Intriguingly quixotic answer as always Stan!”

So you don’t believe that we can make the world a better place?

Or, you don’t find it worthwhile to put in the hours? [grin]

Any way the disagreement goes, if you’re right, we’re all going to hell. Worse, we’ll be taking our children to hell with us. And the latter, you and I will regret with bitter tears.

Note: My reference to Hell was meant as a metaphor, but it could be quite literal as well.

Perfecting Dad May 5, 2011 at 4:13 am

I really liked the high-IQ study that Terman did and was documented by Gladwell. Showing that natural ability can be squandered or nurtured.

One thing that I didn’t like about Gladwell’s Outliers is that it was somewhat demotivational. It felt like we were being given excuses as to why everyone couldn’t be an outlier. Even if it’s true that luck played the maximal part in these outliers’ success, I like to think that if we set ourselves up then luck will happen more often. So pick what you like and get those 10,000 hours in!

Paul Wolfe May 5, 2011 at 5:36 pm

I agree with that – I thought Gladwell did belabour that point, and made success of some of the people featured as pure chance.

The truth is as you get to the ‘top of the tree’ in your chosen discipline vis a vis ability level, the chances of getting noticed rise significantly.

Stuart May 4, 2011 at 8:50 am

Paul, I already knew your viewpoints about natural talent and hard work, so this post ‘confirmed’ your beliefs in a way. But since you’ve invited us (even implored us) to share our beliefs, I shall respond in kind:

I believe that you have to do incredible amounts of hard work to reach superstar level, in any occupation or activity. However, I also believe that if we applied this to everything that we come across in life, especially as children, then at some point we have to pick and choose. Sometimes, like in the case of Tiger Woods, the choice is made for us.

I don’t know whether or not Tiger’s father had tried any other sports on his baby son before golf. He might have tried baseball, or basketball for all we know, yet baby Tiger could have rejected these sports. Either way, the fact that he reacted favourably to the customised putter must have provided enough hope for Earl to continue with the golf practice.

Now, we all know the stories of the ‘pushy parents’ who force their children to do something they don’t want to do, all for the sake of living out their own dreams. I wonder, some children (such as Tiger Woods) may have taken to their new pursuits, but others don’t. What happens to them? Do they give up and become demoralised because their parents are disappointed in them? Do they stick it out until they reach the 10,000 hour point, and then start a new pursuit? When we’re young and impressionable, a lot can influence us, and our paths may be forced upon us.

Just my thoughts Paul :-)

Paul Wolfe May 4, 2011 at 4:34 pm

Stu

Good points.

I went to school with someone like this. He was 14/15 and at the time was in the top 2 for boys at swimming butterfly. He had a rivalry going with another guy, and they kept breaking each others records.

But around 15 he gave up. Just stopped. Maybe the training was too hard. Maybe he’d discovered girls and beer and didn’t want to go to bed at 9pm every night so he could get up at 5am and get two hours in the pool before school started (no kidding).

So it does happen.

And we do know that Earl Woods didn’t try any other sport with Tiger (even though Earl was a pro baseball player and didn’t actually play his first game of golf until he was 41). Earl became fascinated with golf, and decided that Tiger would be a golf champion. (in the same way that Richard Williams would walk Venus and Serena through gang land and clear broken glass every day from their courts to practice).

JF made a good point about persistence in the comments below – I’m trying to work out how to trigger ‘ignition; for my kids on a subject so that they’ll actually WANT to put the work in. Not be forced.

Good points.

Paul

john Falchetto May 4, 2011 at 8:57 am

Hi Paul,

I can see how much you love this debate :)

I just like you don’t believe in natural talent. I do believe however that some of us have a certain natural desire to get better at something.
Some of us will put in the 10,000+ hours to become Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Mozart and the vast majority will stay home, watch mind numbing TV, eat junk food and complain.

So the question is why are some of us persistent in the face of adversity, nothing comes easy right?
When everyone else gives up and says it won’t work why do some keep going?

That trait I think is natural and not taught.

Paul Wolfe May 4, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Hey JF

Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts. And a really question about persistence.

From what I read of Tiger Woods and his training (I read ‘Training a Tiger’ by Earl Woods), I don’t think Tiger had a ‘choice’ as such. And it’s possible that Tiger’s ‘resolve’ and persistence was allied to pleasing his Father.

Also it’s possible that he may not have known any other way, or realized there was another way until it was too late. (Very like Susan Polgar in that respect. And Mozart).

The bigger question is what drives ‘older’ children and/or adults to put in those hours of sacrifice and hard work. (And let’s not trivialize 10,000 Hours – if you’re doing the right kind of practice, it’s bloody hard work). Daniel Coyle in ‘The Talent Code’ calls this process ‘Ignition.’

Also that trait can be triggered by external factors – I create what some people think of is an insane amount of content each work for my bass guitar site. But it was triggered literally as a survival instinct when my offline business got hammered in the financial crash in 2008.

This is a topic that needs more thought and research.

Great point.

Paul

Kevin Matthews May 4, 2011 at 11:23 am

Hi Paul,

I am a huge fan of this book – and the author behind it, and your blog post accurately reflects all the perspectives offered by the book.

I also firmly believe that the people who have commented thus far on your post, would find the answers to their questions within the book. This is an aspect of Matthew Syed’s work I particularly respect – he answers these questions each time, whilst adding further references to how their success (or lack of) complements the topics within the book.

I was inspired so much by his work that I sought Matthew out and interviewed him. You may want to listen to it: http://www.maximisepotential.co.uk/matthew-syed-author-of-bounce/

Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed post!

Kevin

Paul Wolfe May 4, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Kevin

Thanks for the link to the interview – I’ll definitely be checking it out later.
And yep, I think BOUNCE is a good work – and I particularly liked the way he was able to take the work of Ericsson and others and show how it had worked in the context of table tennis.

Thanks for stopping by.

Paul

Mark Dykeman May 4, 2011 at 1:45 pm

It’s amazing how much the information in this post echoes the material in Geoff Colvin’s book Talent Is Overrated, which makes a very similar case.

As for the Natural Talent argument: there can be some advantages due to physiology and genetics. Perfecting Dad attempts to make this point with his two examples, but:

a) He seems to miss the point of “deliberate practice” as being a key input into the success of the violinists during their 10K hours. He’s right, of course: doing something for 10K hours is no guarantee of success. But, 10K hours of deliberate, focused practice: yes, that does make the difference and the research bears that out. I do believe that people can be born with characteristics that make them better than the unskilled or untrained, but the research does seem to show that “natural talent” is virtually equalized over time by the pursuit of deliberate practice.

b) Perfecting Dad sites the advantages of arms, height, and body shape for sports like swimming and basketball. Again, there is certainly inherent advantage for these characteristics…. if you know how to use them! A freakishly tall basketball player who can’t run or shoot or who is in poor physical condition will eventually lose out to shorter players because of (wait for it) their training, practice and experience. And, Phelps body type would not help him if he didn’t know a lot about swimming and spent years cementing mental patterns to allow him to do things without thinking about them.

Great post, thanks.

Paul Wolfe May 4, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Hey Mark

Geoff Colvin’s “Talent Is Overrated” book is an awesome read. I found it when I was researching a book on practice for bass guitarists – and I will be eternally grateful for him introducing me to the work of Anders Ericsson and others.

I agree on the whole with your answers to Perfecting Dad – he’s also replied to your comment, so I’m going to move down there and add some thoughts there.

Thanks for taking the time to comment. If you enjoyed Talent iS Overrated, you’d probably enjoy The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle too. (Though you’ve probably already read it).

Paul

Perfecting Dad May 4, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Mark Dykeman: for a) “He seems to miss the point of “deliberate practice” as being a key input into the success of the violinists ” — I have been practicing Aikido for about 20 years, probably put in 10,000 hours by now. I am not a natural talent, but I have become quite good over the years. There are some who try very hard and deliberately, but can barely tell their left from their right even after several years. They have “peaked” at a low level. My point is (and when I wrote “victim of a classic blunder” I was dreaming of the enthusiastic Sicilian in the Princess Bride, but I reread it and see that it might seem condescending; it ain’t; sorry). My point is, whenever you look at successful people and try to explain, by finding a common trait, why they are successful then you will very often be led astray. What I think is that you cannot be a top violinist without a lot of practice, and you cannot be a top violinist without at least some “talent”. Probably anyone can get good, and a person who practices can beat out a talent who does not. One of these aspects of “talent” might just be how much practice you can mentally take! For people who love violin, practice is pleasurable.

for your b) comment about natural advantage (talent), yes of course you need practice, but it isn’t enough. I was giving a couple of obvious counter-examples of genetics that you cannot overcome with practice. Here are more: Top female marathon runners presumably practice as much as males, yet the female world record is more than 10 minutes slower than the male … and the winner of the female marathon in Beijing would have come in around 60th place if she ran with the men. The fastest 100M woman would not have qualified to the quarter-finals if she ran with men. Translated into violin, this is the difference between the top and merely very good, and I’m pretty sure that even the very good are blessed with very good genetics.

Mark Dykeman May 4, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Thanks Perfecting Dad, I understand where you are coming from now.

Paul Wolfe May 4, 2011 at 4:09 pm

There’s an interesting point here that I want to address. And I speak from direct experience of this.

And it’s about ‘plateauing.’

Most people think that when they ‘plateau’ they’ve reached the limit of their ‘natural’ talent. that’s rarely the case. What’s usually happened is they’ve either reached the limits of their training – or they are not practicing correctly.

I wrote about this in this psot:

http://www.onespoonatatime.com/lessons-for-content-marketers-from-tiger-woods-an-introduction-to-deliberate-practice

Look for the section on the Learning Zone. This is why it’s not as simple as practicing 10,000 hours. It’s the type of practice you have to do – as a rule of thumb if you’re practicing things that you already know then you’re stagnating. To carry on growing you have to practice things that you can’t do.

Paul Wolfe May 4, 2011 at 4:13 pm

The difference between men and women isn’t a difference in ‘talent’ levels – it’s physiological differences. And yes those differences exist – off topic, but interesting: did you know that in the 60s the US Air Force tested and realized women make better high speed combat pilots and astronauts than men, but they didn’t recruit them for those jobs because it meant giving them hysterectomies (something to do with high G forces).

It’s really important in this debate to separate out acquisition of skills and how to do it from people’s heights, or builds, or lung capacity.

Paul Wolfe May 4, 2011 at 4:17 pm

I’m interested in an answer to this:

“My point is, whenever you look at successful people and try to explain, by finding a common trait, why they are successful then you will very often be led astray.”

Specifically, please name me one successful person in any discipline who hasn’t practiced/studied?

(Also if you read some of my posts on writing you’ll see William Goldman mentioned a few times – The Princess Bride is an awesome book – I totally got the reference, but I could see that someone who has not seen the film or read the book might not now that you’ve pointed it out. One of the best starting lines of any novel:

“It’s still my favourite book in the world. And more than ever I wish I’d written it.” If only he’d finish BUTTERCUP’S BABY!”

Perfecting Dad May 4, 2011 at 8:13 pm

Asnwer to: “My point is, whenever you look at successful people and try to explain, by finding a common trait, why they are successful then you will very often be led astray.”

Specifically, please name me one successful person in any discipline who hasn’t practiced/studied?
== Answer ==
That is not my point. They may have all practiced, but the practice may not be the cause of the success. There are other people who practiced but did not achieve success. That’s all. However, since you asked, a few that I found: Leslie Lemke pianist, Gottfried Mind painter, mathematical savants abound who can intuitively calculate faster than anyone who has practiced no matter how long. Tons of people are successful in business by “falling into it”: Zuckerberg founder of Facebook at age of 20 had way fewer years of business knowledge than, say the Donald (Trump), yet he’s now worth about 5 times more than the Don.

When you round up people who are the best, then look for commonalities, you will find things are common but no the cause because you exclude all the people who are failures but also have the common trait. If you didn’t know better you would round up the violin prodigies to find that they are all human, alive, have hair, use shoes, brush their teeth, etc. These are obviously not connected, but if you had no clue about what caused the success then you might hypothesize that hair might be the cause … until you saw all the people with hair who were not prodigies.

I’m not saying practice doesn’t make people better … it obviously does. And I think you can go very far with hard work and practice. I was just making the point you can also be disappointed if you fail to pick a discipline that you might succeed in to direct that practice effort.

Marianne Worley May 5, 2011 at 3:51 am

I recently finished reading “The Facebook Effect.” While I acknowledge that Mark Zuckerberg is certainly intelligent, his current business knowledge is a result of surrounding himself with experienced business leaders and seeking out mentors. His programming capabilities were developed by doing marathon code-writing sessions. In essence, he learned, he studied, and he practiced. His wealth is a result of his smart decisions and unbelievably hard work, combined with a persistent vision for what Facebook could be. If you’re interested the Zuckerberg backstory, I highly recommend this book.

Paul Wolfe May 5, 2011 at 5:40 pm

@Marianne

Thanks for that reply.

@PerfectingDad

The ‘savants’ can be disregarded for the purpose of what we’re talking about – these are people whose brains are just wired differently. We can’t imitate what they do – it’s impossible. (Though if a scientist could work out a way to do that….that would be REALLY interesting).

I’ll take a look at Lemke and Mind – have never heard of them so cannot either rebut or otherwise until I know about them. Thanks for the suggestions.

(And thanks for your contributions to the debate. Really appreciate them).

Paul Wolfe May 5, 2011 at 5:44 pm

There’s one connection I made as a result of Outliers though.

Last year I was teaching a course on bass guitar, and teaching the common chord progressions that crop up over and over in songs. With every chord progression I listed there were ALWAYS Beatles tunes that were examples.

I always wondered where Lennon & McCartney got that chord progression knoweldge – Outliers gave the answer. I knew about the Hamburg gigs they’d done – but I’d assumed (don’t know why) that they were just rock n roll gigs. Instead they played just about everything – and they picked up a lot of their chord knowledge from playing jazz standards.

Not relevant – but thought someone might be interested!

Steve@Internet Lifestyle May 4, 2011 at 3:14 pm

I fall into the disagree and agree group.

The way i see it is like this. On the low end of the scale it makes little difference. Practice is what matters 100%

As you get better a person with natural talent may begin to pick it up a little bit quicker than someone without, but at this point someone who works hard at it can still be better than someone who doesn’t.

Then you get to the point where the both the “natural” and the “hard worker” have had the requisite training is where the differences are.

Lets look at some of your examples.

Mozart: Admittedly he busted ass to get his skills. But do you think Salieri (sp?) worked at it less. but he did not have mozarts natural talent.

Tiger: Same thing. No doubt he worked his butt off to be a champion. But are you saying that the thousands of other golfers none of them (with less natural talent) put in just as much effort, maybe managed to make it to the pros, but didn’t have that extra little bit of skill.

To me it is like diamonds and zircons.

A diamond in the rough looks like crap. Take a raw diamond and a zircon (our polished and trained person who “works” at it) and a zircon frankly looks better.

But when you take that diamond (natural talent) AND you add in the work and effort to polish it, that is when it really is something special.

The superstars we see are the diamonds. They do all have that incredible work ethic. They couldn’t be superstars without it. But there is also something in them (IMO) that amounts to “natural” talent.

In other words, tiger is great, but if Earl sat him down at a piano and he worked just as hard at playing the piano as he has in his life at golf, while I am sure he could make a living from the work (because of effort), I do not think he would be close to reproducing the work of Mozart.

Capishe’

At least that is how I see it

Paul Wolfe May 4, 2011 at 4:28 pm

Steve

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a great comment as always.

First, this: “Mozart: Admittedly he busted ass to get his skills. But do you think Salieri (sp?) worked at it less. but he did not have mozarts natural talent.”

I don’t know enough about Salieri to answer that question. But as I say in the post, Mozart’s father was a respected composer in his own right. And more importantly – one of the most important musical teachers of his time.

I’d be guessing here, but I’ll guess away anyway – I’d say that Mozart put in more hours of effective practice than Salieri. And that factor alone elevated him above Salieri.

Let’s assume Salieri started later than Mozart – and that Mozart had for sake of argument 2000 hours more training than Salieri. From just about the best teacher of the age. I can’t see anyway for Salieri to make up that differential.
(2000 hours remember is 3 hours work a day, 6 days a week, for 2 years – translate that to any activity and compound interest ensures that it’s next to impossible to catch that up).

Second: my answer to your theoretical question about Tiger playing piano instead of golf would have to be: Yes, but with one qualification. Providing the teaching was good. With Tiger, he was taught initially by his Dad. Then his dad got two golf pros in to help with the teaching. (When Tiger was about 5). And then they got Butch Harmon involved – and he was complimentary about the teaching Tiger had had up until that point.

Here’s how I understand it: the talent ONLY appears after the work has been put in.

But I’m happy for you to disagree with me! This is one of the most fascinating comment threads (for me) I’ve ever been involved in!

Paul

Marlee May 4, 2011 at 5:47 pm

Hey Paul!
This is a GREAT discussion and I fall into the same camp as Steven. I agree that “deliberate practice” can make you proficiently in almost anything you have an aptitude for. That said I disagree with the idea that there is no such thing as “natural” talent. There certainly is. But without getting into details and examples, I don’t think lacking “natural talent” in an area precludes one from becoming talented in that area. And I don’t think that having “natural talent” precludes you from the necessary and beneficial “deliberate practice.”

Great discussion. Thank you!

Paul Wolfe May 4, 2011 at 8:10 pm

Hey Marlee

Always nice to see you here! And you disagreed with me! Yay for that! We need more courteous dissent on the Blogosphere!

However I really REALLY want to hear your details and examples. That’s the only way I can test the ideas that I have and that I believe in. By holding them up against other people’s ideas and comparing them.

So please, please, please come back and tell me why you think I’m wrong. It’s an opportunity for us both to grow wiser!

Paul

Marlee May 6, 2011 at 2:02 am

LOL. Okay. Will do once I’m off deadline. :)

Dino Dogan May 5, 2011 at 2:49 am

No talent + No practice = Nothing

Natural talent + no practice = Nothing.

Natural talent + practice = Something

No talent + Practice = Something

Im with you btw…I dont consider myself all that talented in many things I do but boy am I tenacious.

Eugene @ Internet Success May 5, 2011 at 5:20 pm

I think that’s a pretty good summary right there.

Paul Wolfe May 5, 2011 at 5:46 pm

Hey Dino

Thanks for taking timing out from developing Triberr to stop by and leave a comment.

JF touched on this in his comment – maybe the greatest ‘talent’ anyone can possess is tenacity. Or persistence. Or sheer bloody-mindedness. Whatever you call it.

Paul

Marianne Worley May 5, 2011 at 4:07 am

Hi Paul,

Love this discussion–so interesting. I think physical characteristics that aid in developing a skill are often mistaken for “natural talent.” Here is an example from my own life, also focused on music. My sister and I started playing the piano at the same time. We had a great teacher and were dedicated students. I actually had an advantage when we started because I already knew how to read music. Yet, my sister was always much better at the piano than I was, even though I practiced more and really studied the mathematical origins of music.

The cause? Genetics. She simply has hands that are very different from mine, longer fingers, wider reach, etc. So what was happening was that her practice sessions, though shorter than mine, were more productive. And she developed into a much better piano player than me.

I am a natural talent at one thing though–sleeping! :-)

-Marianne

Paul Wolfe May 5, 2011 at 5:48 pm

Hey Marianne

Great comment. And analytical too – most people would assume that your sister was more naturally talented. (For non musicians amongst us, hand size can make a difference in the early stages of learning any instrument).

I used to be greeeeatttttt at sleeping – especially when I was a working musician and gigged 4 or 5 times a week. I only ever saw the morning on the way back from a gig.

That all changed since the Kids came along though….now I’m a champ at getting by on 5 or 6 hours sleep.

Paul

Marina Brito@Defeat The Cousin May 5, 2011 at 5:15 am

Hola Paul!

You know that I don’t disagree with you on this topic of Natural Talent. However, I’d like to explore it from another angle:

What is Talent at its minimal expression? I believe that it’s simply neural connections. It’s neurons that have learned (through repetition) to fire together and to form stronger connections between them at every iteration.

If Talent is a collection of electrical impulses, it makes sense to me that Deliberate Practice is what allows us to perfect those connections and eventually become skilled at anything.

If we accept the idea that Talent develops purely through the timely execution of millions of electrical impulses, how can we attribute an advantage to genetics?

For example, I don’t think that there is a gene which gives us a leg up on using a typewriter – or a piano. I believe that practice allows for those skills to develop. What would happen if children in school were taught to play the piano with as much emphasis as it is currently given to reading and writing? I bet that many of those children would be piano virtuosos – regardless of the size of their hands.

mxx

Paul Wolfe May 5, 2011 at 6:03 pm

I agree! And I think the current teaching methodologies being used in schools are short changing all of our kids.

Paulxx

Daniel M. Wood May 5, 2011 at 9:36 am

I do believe almost every skill can be learned, but everyone does have natural talents. You can compensate for them by working hard, but it is better if you can find something that matches you talents and work really hard on them. That way you will get the most leverage, you could even become the best in the world at it.

I don’t think there is any reason not to respect the value of natural talent, what we need to remember is that everyone has natural talents in some area. Find you natural talents, practice regularly, with a good teacher and have persistance and you will become the best you can be.

Paul Wolfe May 5, 2011 at 6:23 pm

Daniel

Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts.

How does someone recognize they are ‘naturally talented’ at something? If natural talent exists, why are there no published books written by 8 or 9 year old ‘naturally talented’ writers (that are hailed as good books).

Why are there no paintings considered masterpieces painted by 8 or 9 year old naturally talented painters?

Do I need to go on? If natural talent DOES exist (I’m not convinced), why is there no-one so prodigiously talented that he ‘arrives’ at world class level? (and please don’t use Mozart as an example – true he composed works aged 8 and 9. But he didn’t compose his ‘masterpieces’ until he was in his early 20s – after 1000s of hours of deliberate practice).

Daniel M. Wood May 6, 2011 at 5:37 am

You are right about that Paul.
No one becomes a super star by just talent.
But you do have strengths, you have things you are better at and things you are worse at. By practicing what you have a knack for you can become even better, even best at it, but practicing what you are horrible at, that which you have no natural talent, will be harder to improve. It is possible and it does happen that people who have no natural talent for something overcome it and still become stars.

But I do believe that it is easier if you instead find what you are naturally good at and work to improve on those skills.

Eugene @ Internet Success May 5, 2011 at 4:18 pm

Well Paul, you are stark raving mad! :)

But in all seriousness, I know we began this debate over at Marcus’ site, and I’m glad you continued it here.

I have to agree with you that “natural” talent doesn’t exist IF you separate the genetic factors. But in my opinion you can’t really do that.

I do not have all of the studies to back this up as you do, and I appreciate the amount of research you put into this. But I can go off of personal experiences.

For instance there have been times when when my mom has told me that I do something just like her grandfather did. Be it a certain way I move my body, or a look I give, or whatever it may be.

This is a man that I have never met before in my life. But I obviously have a genetic connection to him.

I don’t think that people have even come close to discovering how much genetics really effects our behaviors.

For instance, I mentioned body movement. If I move the same way my great grandfather did, wouldn’t it make sense that I can probably be naturally more inclined to perform certain physical actions as well as he did? If he was a wood carver, maybe that means that I would be naturally more inclined to work with my hands and carve wood as well as he did.

Of course if I let that natural inclination go to waste, and never practiced, it would get me nowhere.

I think if Mozart and a regular Joe off the street both practiced 7,000 hours, Mozart would win out. If Mozart only practiced 5,000 the average Joe would win out.

This all of course assumes we aren’t taking genetics out of the equation :)

Paul Wolfe May 5, 2011 at 6:35 pm

Hey Eugene

Thanks for stopping by and continuing our discussion! (the words ‘stark’ ‘raving’ and ‘mad’ have been together before in sentences involving my name!)

Genetics isn’t an area I have much knowledge on – but my understanding of the current iteration of evolutionary theory leads me to believe that skillsets (like piano, wood carving, computer programming etc) can’t be passed down genetically. It takes centuries for ‘evolution’ to start programming traits critical to species survival (which is what evolution is about, it couldn’t give a shit about art and music and computer programming and writing….).

What’s more likely to happen is say let’s take someone who is the son of a pianist. He is much more likely to be surrounded by piano and piano music than someone who is the son of a wood carver. And much more likely to see it as an activity that he wants to do – because he sees his father doing it. And vice versa with the wood carving.

Here’s an example from home – the other day my 8 year old son wrote what was effectively a blog post about lego. He showed it to my wife and she asked him why he’d written it. And he said: it’s what daddy does. He writes stories about things and publishes them on the internet. And he’d got the title in bold, and sub-heads and the kind of formatting stuff that he sees me doing on the laptop at the kitchen table.

Now is he going to be ‘naturally talented’ at blogging or writing? No. But given that he’s exposed to it at a level that NONE of his contemporaries are, he might progress in those areas and when he’s older be considered ‘naturally talented.’ When really he’s just had extra practice.

That make sense?

Paul

Perfecting Dad May 5, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Twin studies indicate that most of a person’s traits are genetic and not learned. Twins raised apart are much more likely than average to be in the same profession, have similar personality traits, have similar IQ, like the same foods, have similar achievement in school, that kind of thing.

Also, evolution isn’t what gives people the preferential ability to, say, process music — it’s the natural variation that occurs within one generation. Just like you have two children of two different heights; one did not evolve more or less than the other.

Philipp Grunwald September 22, 2012 at 9:17 am

Actually, that idea is not thought to its end. It was exactly because those twins usually ALSO grew/grow up in the SAME CIRCUMSTANCES, i.e. get the same exposure. But they actually found identical twins (of adult age), that – living in another country or at least another country – had differing levels of e.g. weight (see BBC report), but why? Well, it turns out that certain genes were (i.e. can be) switched ON or OFF, that was (most likely) the cause !! So this means, both people having the same DNA (i.e. genetic traits) still doesn’t help, because a body adjusts even when it is already born and fully physically grown.

Jk Allen May 6, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Hey Paul,

Great article!

First off, maybe my attitude stems from the fact that I refuse to think I can’t be just as good as the next person…because of that attitude, I think talents are created. We’re born with gifts, but talents are created.

I don’t believe in natural talent. I believe that we are all predisposed to certain things, that can trigger our interest early…which may seem natural.

I live in Colorado where people like to do this crazy thing called Ski. I’m from California so I’m not into it at all. But I always hear people say – my kid is a natural skier. And I ask, well how long have they been skiing? Always it’s some crazy answer like: “they started taking lessons at 3 and now at 10 he’s the best”. Well, duh! But that doesn’t make him naturally talented to ski. right? Natural means that he was born with a talent to ski. In my mind, he was born with the ability to learn how to ski.

My daughter is very artistic. She naturally loves it. My son is somewhat artist, he’s never really been a big fan. So what do you know, my daughter is a good drawer and my son is an average one. My daughter spends a lot of time drawing and perfecting her craft..and my son only draws when there’s nothing else to do.

I grew up playing sports. And that’s one place where people talk about natural abilities. Well, it’s also a great place to breakdown if natural talents exists. Because at certain levels of football and basketball I played, a person who never played the sports before couldn’t just step in and compete. But if the science was true behind natural talents – then they would be able to – but I’ve never seen it happen.

That’s my take!
Great read and article!

Christian Hollingsworth May 6, 2011 at 5:52 pm

Now here is where I do have to disagree a little bit. I 100% believe in natural talent. I’m going to use myself for an example; just because it’s fun.

My entire life I’ve been able to sing. Maybe from the womb even. I love to sing. It drives me. It gives me strength. I’ve sung for countless events, church gatherings, funerals, weddings. The funny part is that I’ve always tried to make it a policy to never ASK to sing but to be asked by others. This is what, to me, helps me within to gauge my quality.

The funny part is that I’ve never once (until two weeks ago) had a formal singing lesson. I walked into the lesson, and did my best to sing my little heart out. I was nervous. My new vocal coach has toured Europe as an opera singer, organized hundreds of choirs, and been in music for over five decades. I sung for her, and her words were that she didn’t need to correct me anything. Naturally, I was doing everything right. We would just focus, from then on, on my Italian.

Now maybe, as you say, I just picked it up as a child and taught myself. But that’s certainly a talent for learning. In my mind, though, it just makes sense that we bring with us here natural talents.

So I’d have to say some are born with talents for things – and others – for learning. What do you think JK? I guess it’s not a good idea to banter with a hustler. They pick something and become proficient at it in moments! ;)

It’s sure fun to banter. :D

Christian Hollingsworth May 6, 2011 at 5:44 pm

Loving this post. I’m one who believes there IS such a thing as natural talent. There’s truthful evidence of it everywhere. Each of us is given certain, specific talents and we can choose to run with them or not. I like what Dino pointed out earlier; if you have talent, and don’t practice, nothing will happen.

I know, for a fact, that I was born with certain talents. The interesting part is that the things that come most naturally, are often the things I haven’t grown the most in. Or improved the most in from the beginning. Because I’m lazy. It seems that the things that come easy; are the things I don’t strive to improve. Interesting little problem I tend to run into.

Rob May 6, 2011 at 9:50 pm

Paul,
This was awesome. The best dialogue I have read on one topic. And yet, it’s hardly been touched!

I agree with:
Perfecting Dad-So many valid points that I can’t help but to agree with his entire perspective.
Christian- Furthers what I was also convinced of. We can put other things into the place of vocals and I believe it still plays out.
Dino (especially his + and =’s) For this example I must pull out some Coolidge-“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race”
Although I will add that natural talent will further it along at a faster pace:)
I agree with parts of most others.
@Jk,
Re: Because at certain levels of football and basketball I played, a person who never played the sports before couldn’t just step in and compete. But if the science was true behind natural talents – then they would be able to – but I’ve never seen it happen.

I must disagree. There are plenty of examples of a player not playing a sport until senior year in high school who went on to compete and excell in college and even play in the pro’s. OT James Brewer-4th rounder (Giants) is just one of many. No where is the natural ability played out more than in athletics and singing (@Christian) for that matter. We cannot dismiss it as purely phsical stature, etc. As such all guys playing football most of their youth, being the same size, would also be going pro.

Not big on the idea of Zuckerberg and hard work. Really? At 20 years old? 10,000 hours? There are many brighter, harder working people who have been plugging away much longer. I’m not a hater, just pointing out the obvious. Harvard, influences…right place, right time. I don’t think we can argue natural talent or 10k on that one at all imho.
I realize not everyone that drops out of Harvard (partially?) invents, creates Facebook. But, if we did the old switcheroo at birth and placed Mark just east of Eden; would he have still put in the (10k?) hours needed to create Facebook? I guess that is another debate altogether. I thought it well-covered in Outliers and not disheartening at all.
Thanks Paul, you rock in more ways than one!

Glynis May 7, 2011 at 12:05 pm

I confess I did not read through every person’s commenting responses. I also am unwilling to put in the hours it would take to research and compose my own response in a more educated format.

I DO understand the danger inherent in the concept of natural talent, as explained in the first entry – the self-limiting, the giving up before giving it the good old college try. You, however, are speaking about the MOST of us, but not the ALL of us. The few responses I did read at the top spoke about reaching the epitome of a CERTAIN field, and whether “talent” helped or not, or whether it even helped get to the same place earlier than 10,000 hours. I read about sports, and I read about music. Sports are more subjective, or can be presumed to be measured more accurately than who is “better” at playing lovely music. What constitutes the “best” at music anyway? Surely the following is in there: Speed of movement (fingers) and accuracy, speed of reading the notes (brain), pitch (Can you stay on key?), quality of tone, breath control, diction. But then the subjective kicks in. At this point it can be OPINION as to what is lovelier, more moving or heartfelt. In fact the very idea that emotion can be conveyed through music is a fallacy. There IS ONLY pitch, tempo, phrasing, volume, accuracy, strength of attack of notes, staccato vs legato, rubato or strict tempo. “Emotion” can only be IMPLIED or imitated by manipulating these things and other TECHNIQUES. Even in the most fluid of instruments, the voice, it still boils down to techniques. Text/lyrics also, of course, but how that text is presented using the above techniques “expresses” emotion better or less well. And sure, more hours of practice will help anyone rise further.

I did notice in your provided violin example that all the students ALREADY played the violin and showed significant progress and “promise” at it. But you said that ALL people can reach the same level with the same 10,000 hours. Each one of those students had already “cheated” in a way, and in differing amounts, creating unequal starting points. Each violinist had already logged in X hours. If it is so true that 10000 hours is what it takes, then one could presume to take ANY ONE of those same students from the date they decided to start the race, and pair them with a complete beginner – someone who played no musical instrument whatsoever, didn’t even know there were 5 lines and 4 spaces, nor that there were 4 strings on the violin. Shoot that starting gun, and call me back in 10000 hours.

But this isn’t actually what I wanted to talk about initially, anyway.

Another problem with your first entry is the notion that we ALL can get to the top with that 10000 hours, and it’s implied that we can do this with ANYTHING we wish, and that we’d wish to do it with more than one thing in life. Just to get there with just 4 hobbies and one career is a whopping 50000 hours ! Ten years each = fifty years.

Here’s the thing….. “Talented” or “Gifted” people ALREADY start many things, perhaps even most things already 25% to halfway there! And they progress at such I faster rate then the rest of us schlubs. They therefore have TIME in their meager 24 hour days for mundane things like driving to a JOB, and flossing. “Untalented people” (EW, now THAT’s really not PC!) and average people take longer at their chosen thing, and compared to intellectually gifted people, and gifted people with many talents, they have much fewer sets of 10000 hours to devote to things. They are busy studying harder in college, working harder at work – for slower promotions no less. And lower job positions keep them working longer hours to amass the same amount of money someone at a higher hourly wage has risen to. Life is HARD on the bottom. It’s not much fun in the middle either.

I’m really WITH you on not letting the self-defeating side of natural talent become a self-defeating thing. This should particularly be watched out for carefully in children. But as a parent, one’s duty is also to SEARCH for a child’s NATURAL abilities in area A or B and steer them when possible into such activities.

Your violinist example is an example of extreme specialization. The 10000 hours requires a devotion that will exclude other activities to fit within any normal 24/7 life. Who doesn’t know that there just isn’t time for everything and that you need to make hard choices. The extreme specialization is also to reach some undefined “utmost” level.

I have raised a highly gifted kid (only to age 24 mind you). He is not only intellectually far superior, but also academically inclined (meaning there are some areas of great intelligence that our academic system doesn’t address or foster). He also finds most athletics quite easy to master to whatever extent he wishes. (He’s also smart enough to CHOOSE which athletics “fit” his abilities, and at a wiry and somewhat scrawny frame, knows it would take ALL of the 10000 hours to build his body into something it’s not genetically predisposed to to and to acquire a level of ability in that area. This is why he goes rock-climbing and eschews attempting to become the school’s best LINEBACKER.) The thing is, NOTHING this kid has attempted in life – NOTHING – has him starting out at the same level as the rest of us! There has been nothing he can’t overshadow us in (except that linebacker thing).

Intellectually, to claim that the same 10000 hours of concentration in science would GUARANTEE that EVERY ONE OF US, even those on the bottom of the intelligence scale (at least those staying a quarter step above drooling) would be neck and neck with EINSTEIN, and his contemporaries (Did he even have contemporaries? LOL) is quite a stretch. So it’s not just about the armless swimmer in sports, or even my scrawny brainiac as a linebacker. In the realm of intelligence and it’s tasks, careers, accomplishments, whatever. There is just NOT such a thing as a completely level playing field once you’ve logged in the same 10000 hours – and held down a day job, and taken out the trash, and fed the cat, and raised children, and flossed.

So it’s not JUST that folks don’t have 4 shots at 4 separate areas of 10000 hours to spare from their lives of Facebook and flossing. It just doesn’t hold up – or at least it’s not a magical 10000 hour guarantee of equality at the end. Not for everyone. Not for the armless swimmer, not for the droolers, not for the scrawny framed teens with snappable chicken bones who dream of the nickname “The Refrigerator”.

I have seen the scenario from the other side, too. I have seen exactly how DESTRUCTIVE the notion of natural talent can be for those WITHOUT any, or without it in the area they wish. I have a second son. He can not score as highly on an IQ test as #1 (fewer than 1% of humans can), and his areas of intellect are not academic in nature, or at least not within the current American public school system and its subjects. It really “sucks” being the little brother of my first kid. The more kid #2 looks at kid 1, the more convinced he got that he shouldn’t even bother. And so he got (for all intents and purposes) even dumber.

Wrap up: “Natural Talent” can be a very destructive notion and should be kept secret from children for as long as possible to prevent them not trying hard enough to achieve a level of success. “Natural Talent” is also real. It is a physical edge, genetically, a mental edge, genetically. If it were not real, then 10000 hours would GUARANTEE EVERY teenager an Olympic gold medal at the end of that effort. EVERY teenager with two arms anyway.

Paul Wolfe May 7, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Glynis

Great comment – thank you for the time that must have taken you. Just wanted you to know that I’ll be back later to read again in detail and answer/respond/agree/disagree.
(My wife is away and my kids want to go play soccer in the park).

Paul

Jon@Business Ideas May 7, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Paul,

I’m a religious man. Not fanatical, but I’m a Believer in God. There are some people placed on this planet to do extraordinary things for a reason. They were blessed to lead. Gifted in a divine nature to help further our species.

But that isn’t the only source of academic and/or athletic gift or talent.

Talent is skill honed and crafted by practice. We can become great writers if we, as you suggest, learn from the great.

We can learn to paint beautifully on canvas if we’re mentored by accomplished artists and spend hours upon hours practicing our craft. Same goes for becoming a musician.

We’re all born the same with the same piece parts and opportunities. We’re all born with the same constraint of time and space. What we CHOOSE to do with the potential we have with the allotment of time we’re given is just that; a choice.

In the fitness world (I’m an avid weightlifter), there are shortcuts you can take. Pills and such to give you an “edge.” Not only is it a health risk but those “gains” don’t endure.

But you know what does?

Discipline. The sooner you resign yourself to your endeavor/passion as a lifestyle choice, the sooner you’ll find noteworthy improvement. Only the people I’ve seen aggressively pursuing their 10k hours in fitness, on a consistent basis, are the ones who I see approached by others asking them, “how do you do that…”

Great examples used in this article, Paul. Thank you, sir!

-Jon

Jason@Internet Medicine Man May 12, 2011 at 8:11 pm

I think that there are areas where natural talent exist.

Take me for example. I believe I have this natural talent of problem solving. Even as a young kid I built my own computer from the ground up, not just following instructions but figuring out what didn’t work, why and in the end figuring out what did work. I used to work for a hosting company, where I trouble shot websites and servers to figure out why they didn’t work. I just had a knack for doing it. The bosses tried to get me to train others and I could train someone to do something from the beginning, and understand the process of creating it, but to figure out why something didn’t work that already existed was something most people couldn’t pick up.

To some degree practice and learning helped me solve some problems faster, but I just seem to have had that natural talent to understand things at a core level that helped me discover solutions.

Maybe it’s even a natural talent of learning, I’m curious by nature. Just that something works isn’t good enough for me, I want to know how, why, what for. When I was 13 I had a RC Car that broke. I took it apart played with the 100 pieces all over the bedroom floor, figured out the problem, put it back together, and drove my car some more. Never with the practice of building anything or working with motors or radio controlled anything before.

Maybe that natural talent is the curiosity. The unending thirst to understand how, and not being okay with just that it works.

I met a client that was an ex-cop once. He had a natural talent of just seeing things that didn’t fit. We’d be driving to lunch or something and to explain it he’d ask me what was wrong with that vehicle we are passing. I didn’t see it. But he would notice in seconds that the driver didn’t use a key to start the car, there was a screwdriver hanging out the ignition. His police chief always tried to get him to teach that, but he never could figure out how. He just had that knack for picking out things that didn’t fit. Maybe that natural talent for him was a similar curiosity that I have, except for him it was being observant to his surroundings and just noticing people. He could look at a crowd and tell you who was breaking the law, not by profiling but by just picking out some small detail that didn’t fit and sure enough there was drugs or whatever else.

But these things neither of us were ever able to teach someone. And unfortunately neither are in high demand enough to get paid very well. So the ex-cop does real estate and I run a failing web development company, soon to be focusing on the problem of how to deliver pizza from point A to point B and get a decent tip, LOL.

Nest June 22, 2011 at 8:51 am

Hello Paul,
I don’t know if you’re still looking at answers on this topic, but I’ll reply anyway. I’ve found this post when I was a little bit lost myself and found it quite interesting. I also read most of the answers.
But I’m still convinced that natural talent exist. I know people have talked about virtuosos and pro sport figures, but I’d like to talk more about other kinds of “talents”.

I’ll take teaching as an example. The ability to communicate skills and knowledge I believe is a talent on it’s on. (I’m not saying a 4 years old would make a great teacher, hehe) But everyone throught their school years gets a series of some bad, good and amazing teachers. Some really bad teachers with over 30 years of experience.

Same thing as leadership, what makes some people follow them? Look up to them? It’s not something easily “practiced” or learned” I believe some people ARE natural leaders, with traits that helps them, like being charismatic and having good social skills. (and I’m not only talking about presidents and such, also about your everyday people who seem to “attract” people around them )

Creativity is the same thing, I believe some people have more than others. When you read great books and watch good movies do you think anyone could’ve come up with such an interesting concept or idea? (same thing for inventions and things like that) Sure it has been nurture and helped by various things. Anyone can learn to draw well but not everyone can create great things with it!

And there’s a lot of things that can influence what you become good at or what you’d be prone to become good at, like; your gender, personality, how tall you are, your ethnicity, in what environment you grow up (country, social class, poverty/wealth,etc) where you study, what’s around you, your parents, friends etc. And the most important what you truly enjoy and love to do.

All those I things are what make natural talents (and maybe you can’t really call it natural talents :P since it’s not something concrete like “he was born as a naturally amazing piano player” but more “he was born with traits and in an environment that could help him become an amazing piano player”; good ears, good hands, parents who encourage music, etc.) , sure they have to be nurture to bloom, but are there. It’s all in our genetic code :). It’s what makes us all different from each other and so interesting. But I do believe success has little to do with “natural” talent (even if you don’t believe in it). Sure it does help a lot :P

Recipe for Success :
1. Give everything you’ve got
2. Repeat daily

Don’t forget to mix in some luck and opportunities from time to time
Now you tell me what success tastes like :) and I can guarantee you it’ll taste wonderful!

PS: Sorry for all the mistakes and such I’m french and still learning english

Paul Wolfe June 22, 2011 at 8:56 am

Salut Nest!

Bienvenue a Une Cuilliere A Un Moment!

Ton anglais est super – c’est n’est pas necessaire a dire ‘desole.’
Je reviens avec une response plus longue bientot – malheureusement je vais ecrire cette response en anglais! Merci pour ton comment!

Paul

Sam August 7, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Great post @Paul,

I enjoy seeing different points of view, even if they differ from my own. Can’t expand your horizons if you don’t go outside of them. It’s interesting you get into the egoic mind how you display it here. The way you use ego here I wouldn’t really call ego however, but instincts. The ego that doesn’t like change and will do anything to stop it gets more into psychology and if you really want to go out there, metaphysics. Interesting points however to start with.

I would say that natural talent does exist, but in terms of how easily something may come to us, not how much better it may make someone over another at a particular area of study. An example of this would be martial arts. I started them when I was 8 (technically 6, but apparently I went around kicking people) and they came to me very easily compared to other people. My ability to absorb the information and apply it was easier for me than others. Now that isn’t the case with everything so I would say that I had a natural talent for that, but playing guitar as an example, I do not. It takes a lot more effort to learn guitar than it did for say Mathematics, it just does not come easy so I really have to work at it.

On the point of their parents, that does play a big role in things, the support structure, but that’s what it was, support. Mozart lost a lot of that support from his father as he grew up however and still did what he did so it shows that drive and determination played a part there as well.

I’m not discounting that to become successful at something, really doesn’t matter what, practice is required and a lot of it. But, how easily something comes to that person I see as being natural talent, not how good they are at it.

Stacey September 8, 2011 at 1:57 pm

I have always believed that practice makes perfect. I tell my kids that everyday. Yet when it comes to my own personal passion I’ve always been stuck in the belief that you have to have natural talent. Singing has always been said to be the one talent you can’t learn. Until recently I have have not tried to dispute this but since realizing there’s absolutely nothing else I want to do I decided why not try to learn anyway. I am so glad I found your blog because I spend so much time doubting whether it can be done or not that I waste some of the time I could be using to get that extra practice in. Right now I am still at the point where I would be laughed off the stage if I were to try out for any talent contest such as The X-Factor but I’m gonna stick with it and work as hard as I possible can and hopefully in a year or two I can come back to this blog and give you another success story to prove your point lol

Aaron November 16, 2011 at 10:56 am

Thanks for the very interesting article.
Just wondering if anyone mentioned most of the examples apply towards very young people.
So how much of a factor is age in all this?

Bob September 25, 2012 at 8:28 pm

There are probably more than just a few people who could have said what you put down on paper, but I don’t think there are too many who could have stated it as well. Gee, natural talent on your part? I would agree, and say no. It is obvious you have put in the hours it took to write this well.

THANK YOU for your encouraging words!!!

Varsha September 27, 2012 at 6:33 am

Being an artist myself, I completely agree with what you have written. I might have an aptitude for drawing and painting but without putting in the hours of painting and drawing I can never manage to paint anything good.

Antonio L Hill September 27, 2012 at 5:13 pm

I often hear some people “The definition of insanity is doing something the same way over and over and expecting different results. Some people just don’t understand the definition of practice!

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 4 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: